Non-Governmental Organisations

    SUMMER SESSION
    GENDER EQUALITY TRANSVERSAL GROUP

    CONF/TG/GEN(2010)ROUNDTABLE

    Strasbourg, 22 June 2010

    THE BURQA: SYMBOL OF OPPRESSION
    OR AFFIRMATION OF IDENTITY?

    DRAFT SYNOPSIS OF THE ROUND TABLE
    HELD ON TUESDAY, 22 JUNE 2010

    Chair: Karin Nordmeyer (Chair of the Gender Equality Transversal Group)
    Moderator: Christoph Spreng (Special Advisor of the Conference of INGOs for intercultural dialogue)
    Rapporteur: Hannah Herscheid

    The Chair welcomed the fact that the roundtable was taking place the day before the Parliamentary Assembly’s debate on Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia, and giving room to special interaction with international NGOs. However, she also stressed that a quick solution to the problem did not seem to be a realistic outcome of this debate. Rather, the roundtable should represent an exchange of views.

Carina Hägg, Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Vice-Chairperson of the sub-committee on equal participation of women and men in decision-making, is a member of the Swedish Parliament and has - according to her words - a particular Afghanistan related background. As she stated, she herself travelled through Afghanistan in order to understand the reasons for wearing the Burqa. For Ms Hägg it was clear from the beginning onwards that every person in each society shall have the right to wear the clothes they desire to wear. Expressing her most important concern, she claimed that if the Burqa was forbidden by law, women would not be allowed to participate in social life at all. Furthermore, one should also take into account that the Burqa is a tradition and that most women have chosen to wear it themselves. Nevertheless, a situation in which women are threatened for not wearing a Burqa is not acceptable for Ms Hägg either. Additionally, Ms Hägg mentioned that the Burqa was comparable to some European traditions in which headscarves are commonly worn in the countryside.

    Said Aalla, Chair of the Strasbourg Great Mosque, said that the Burqa issue has been discussed in France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland and this is a topic that has been raised at the European level (link to the address of Mr Aalla). Mr Aalla welcomed the fact that the round table was taking place outside the limelight because public discussions about the topic were usually taking place in an “unhealthy environment” in which rights of individuals were often harmed. In order to answer the question of whether the Burqa was a symbol of oppression or reflected identity, Mr Aalla presented three fundamental principles of the Islam and commented on them. First of all clothes must be decent, secondly as clothes reflect one’s identity they should be beautiful and thirdly the clothing shall reflect the culture of the environment one lives in. Furthermore, the Coran did not include any provisions that ask women to dress in a particular way. On the contrary, women while praying or while on a pilgrimage, were even obliged to show their faces. Furthermore, the Burqa - according to Mr Aalla - can be seen as a symbol of inequality between men and women, because most of the men persuade their wives that Islam forces them to wear the Burqa. Therefore, Mr Aalla said that the only solution to the problem would be to convince women that the Burqa is not a religious obligation. However in the further discussion about the topic, all people should be respected equally.

Nursuna Memecan, member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Rapporteur of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, member of the Turkish Parliament from a liberal democratic party, said, that women should be as free as any other human being. For her, the Burqa should not be prohibited because one should not restrict people from wearing what they want. Furthermore, as long as other people want their choices to be treated respectfully, foreign choices also have to be treated with the same respect. However, she also said that the more self confident a person is, the more choices he or she can make. A ban of the Burqa would however depict a step back to authoritarianism. Furthermore, a ban would not punish the men who force their women to wear a Burqa but would punish the women themselves, who then might be very restricted in leaving their house. Ms Memecan stated that she did not understand the reasoning behind covering women’s hair but people should not have the right to tell other people what to wear. Because of the political discussion around the Burqa, many women wearing a Burqa shy away from participating in society. This was not acceptable to Ms Memecan who rather demanded welcoming these women to European societies. Furthermore more interaction with these women was needed in order to help them in the right manner. All in all, oppression of women should be punished and women would have to be empowered and not be excluded from society.

    After the three speakers, interventions from the audience were added to the roundtable. First, Sophie Dimitroulias, (Association of Women of Southern Europe - AFEM), asked the question of whether it would be acceptable that the value of women varied according to the culture they lived in. Furthermore, she said that the Council of Europe should ensure that human rights are protected. By reasoning from a legal perspective she said that the issue of the Burqa might seriously impact on the political and legal status of the Council of Europe. For instance, the right of equality, according to Ms Dimitroulias, was seriously undermined by the right to show one’s identity and this was not acceptable to her, because the Burqa was a demonstration of extremism, violence and force. All in all, during the discussion, the essential values of the Council of Europe should be respected.

    Martine Cerf, French journalist, outlined the situation in France where a bill would be enacted in July prohibiting the wearing of Burqas (link to the intervention of Ms Cerf). For Ms Cerf, the Burqa was acting against the three fundamental principles of France; freedom, equality and brotherhood. She welcomed the law that regulates the problem of the Burqa. Finally she stressed that the law was not against the European Convention of Human Rights because according to Art. 9 thereof, restrictions based on public order were allowed.

    In the second part of the roundtable, Christoph Spreng moderated an attempt to find a strategy for the problem. In his statement, he stressed the importance of the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue adopted by the Committee of Ministers two years ago. In order to find a strategy on the Burqa problem, Mr Spreng referred to a Management Strategic Planning Course in which one can identify five different steps towards a solution: first the defining of missions and objectives, which can be seen in the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, secondly a situational scanning, thirdly the formulation of a strategy, fourthly the implementation and fifthly the evaluation of the strategy. Afterwards, the strategy formulation started with several comments from the audience. Anje Wiersinga (International Alliance of Women - IAW), for instance said that the extreme ideology behind the wearing of the Burqa must be combated; however a ban would not help either. Rather, women should be empowered in order to promote a fruitful discussion. Vera John-Mikolajewski (University Women of Europe - UWE), expressed concerns about public security, which would be harmed by the Burqa. She said that even terrorists could hide behind a Burqa and that therefore, the wearing of the Burqa was not appropriate in every area of public life. Further comments from the audience stressed the importance of respecting rules and values of the host country, because for instance in England “would I drive on the right side?”

    Mr Spreng, coming back to the five steps of the strategy finding procedure, handed out a questionnaire which the participants of the round table were supposed to fill out and which they were able to hand in later. Karin Nordmeyer, closing this round table, said that she was happy and grateful to all speakers for their contributions during this meeting. She expressed the hope that the round table had promoted further dialogue and pointed out that solutions in the Arab, Mediterranean and European areas were depending on further public discussions in.